Libertarian History/Philosophy

Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass, Libertarian Hero


Credit: Library of Congress

Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist who escaped from slavery and went on to become one of the most influential figures in late 19th century America, died on this date in 1895. A lifelong champion of individualism, economic freedom, and constitutional government, Douglass stands as one of America's greatest proponents of the principles of classical liberalism. We've written about Douglass repeatedly over the years here at Reason, and on today's anniversary of his death, we're proud to pay tribute once more by sharing two stories from the archives that celebrate his life and legacy.

Frederick Douglass, Classical Liberal: A fresh look at the political evolution of a great American.

It's true that Frederick Douglass simultaneously championed both civil rights and economic liberty. But the proper term for that combination isn't Social Darwinism; it's classical liberalism. The central component of Douglass' worldview was the principle of self-ownership, which he understood to include both racial equality and the right to enjoy the fruits of one's labor.

Consider the remarkable 1848 letter Doug­lass wrote to his old master, the slaveholder Thomas Auld. It rings out repeatedly with the tenets of classical liberalism. "You are a man and so am I," Douglass declared. "In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living." Escaping from slavery wasn't just an act of self-preservation, Douglass maintained; it was an affirmation of his unalienable natural rights. "Your faculties remained yours," he wrote, "and mine became useful to their rightful owner."

What Frederick Douglass Teaches Us About American Exceptionalism and the Growth of Freedom.

Douglass' genius was not in hailing or excoriating American in hyperbolic terms. Plenty of people before and after him have done that. To simply assert that the United States is the either most perfect or most depraved nation is a form of exceptionalism, to be sure. But it is also an indulgent gesture that presumes that we can't redeem ourselves or ever be held in error.

I think what resonates to this day is that Douglass was able to place America not simply in an international context but also to recognize that embracing freedom and liberty is a process that will continue to unfold and expand (or contract) over time.

The United States has much to be ashamed of as a nation and much to celebrate. But as we hurtle through history, what we need more than anything is a compass by which to chart future actions. Douglass' life and writings help provide that in a way few other examples can.

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  1. Douglass’ genius was not in hailing or excoriating American in hyperbolic terms. Plenty of people before and after him have done that.

    Well, lots of us H&R commenters have taken American to task for his obvious racism… wait, what?

  2. Douglass also was willing to be candid about Lincoln’s failures and shortcomings. From Wikipedia:

    On April 14, 1876, Douglass delivered the keynote speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park. In that speech, Douglass spoke frankly about Lincoln, noting what he perceived as both positive and negative attributes of the late President. Calling Lincoln “the white man’s president”, Douglass criticized Lincoln’s tardiness in joining the cause of emancipation, noting that Lincoln initially opposed the expansion of slavery but did not support its elimination. But Douglass also asked, “Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word?”[49] Douglass also said: “Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery….”

    Iterating that viewpoint today, if you are white, is racist.

    1. Also the only president to suspend habeus corpus, kill without trial, and started A war of aggression on the peaceful and legal secession of the southern states.

      Fuck Lincoln

      1. kill without trial

        What’s Anwar al-Awlaki? Chopped liver? (Okay, maybe he is now, but…)

      2. “Also the only president to suspend habeus corpus, kill without trial,”

        Not that I agree with those things, but he definitely isn’t the only president who has done those things.

        “started A war of aggression on the peaceful and legal secession of the southern states.”

        Define “peaceful.” And while the secession of the Southern states may have been legal, but it was certainly not legitimate (though neither were Lincoln’s motives for fighting the war).

        1. And the South fucking started the shooting. And then started it again.

      3. peaceful and legal secession of the southern states.

        …which was entirely predicated on continuing the systematic degradation and destruction of millions of people.

        Get the hell out of here, Confederate trash.

        1. Get the hell out of here, Confederate trash.

          Ha! Shermaned again!

        2. Yes. Not only is the content of your comment admirable, but so is its spirit. American, I’d say.

      4. Also the only president to suspend habeus corpus,

        “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”

        Anything else stupid you want to get off your chest?

        kill without trial,

        Anwar al-Awlaki says hi. Not to mention all of the various people assassinated at the behest of the federal government, and killed on the local level by the police.

        and started A war of aggression on the peaceful and legal secession of the southern states.

        Nothing says “peaceful” like seizing federal property at gunpoint. Hell, the government extended British property owners more courtesy in property rights than the Confederates did the feds.

        P.S., read Texas v. White. Bilateral secession has plenty of precedent in America. Unilateral secession…usually call that rebellion at best and treason at worst.

        1. Unilateral secession…usually call that rebellion at best and treason at worst.

          So what? I’m not particularly sympathetic to the Confederacy, since their secession was largely about maintaining the institution of slavery, but you aren’t free unless you’re free to leave, regardless of what some lawyers have to say about it.

          1. That raises an important point. People have rights. The right to freely move where they please. States do not have rights. A state, as a political incorporation, only has powers, and those powers not given to the federal government or retained by the people. Justice Chase said the Nazgul found no right to unilateral secession in the Constitution. That the Constitution is not merely a compact between states, but the foundation of a presumably indissoluble union. And, especially as it pertained to Texas, it did not enter the Union solely of its own volition, but with the consent of the states in existence and the federal government. Reason and precedent (Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee, West Virginia) support the conclusion that they must leave it the same way (bilateral secession).

            If they had won the war, then there’d be no issue at all (unilateral secession).

            1. presumably indissoluble

              That presumes an awful lot. The American colonies were once presumed to be an indissoluble protectorate of the Kingdom of Great Britain.

          2. I do agree with that in principle, although I don’t think it’s applicable to the Confederacy, for the reason you described.

            Secession is one of the few things that I do think should be approved by a popular vote, since the entire point of it is ensuring a government that has the consent of the governed. Leaving that decision entirely in the hands of the state government seems counter-productive and produces a conflict of interest. In any case, the state governments (and thus secession) in the South were not legitimate, considering that at least a quarter of the population was enslaved in all CSA states (including a majority in South Carolina and Mississippi, and close to it in a few other states), not to mention other limitations on the political representation of other groups.

            1. Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia did have a referendum on secession (after the secession conventions ratified, so they were more symbolic than anything). In Texas, secession won by a landslide, in Virginia it passed nearly everywhere except the West Virginia counties, and in Tennessee it won by 2/3.

              There’s a legend that GA had a referendum by tossed the results because the people didn’t favor secession, but there’s no evidence to support it.

              1. Interesting. In any all three cases, however, the number of slaves far outnumbered the number of people who voted for secession (given the restrictions on voting, it looks like somewhere only around 10-20% of the white population in those states voted. The numbers closely match the number of people who voted for president, so it’s not that there was low turnout.). And regardless, there’s no right for a majority to enslave a minority, even if they have more votes.

                1. You mean you don’t accept the holy principle of the Tyranny of the Majority? That 51% of the adult population is as close as we mere mortals may come to hearing the voice of God?

                2. there’s no right for a majority to enslave a minority, even if they have more votes.

                  Which of course is an entirely different issue than secession.

              2. “…in Virginia it passed nearly everywhere except the West Virginia counties, and in Tennessee it won by 2/3.”

                A by-county examination of Tennessee will reveal a similar geographic disparity that led the the splitting of old Virginia.

                Only in the case of Tennessee it was the northeastern corner of the State that largely did not want to secede. But, there being iron in those mountains no such division was politically or geographically acceptable.

                Made for some truly nasty times though.

        2. Keep in mind the part that says “the public safety may require it.” I don’t see how jailing anyone who spoke out against the war or LIncoln in states that weren’t in rebellion was necessary for the public safety. Not that I have any sympathy for the CSA, I’ve made my thoughts on them and the illegitimacy of their secession elsewhere in this thread very clear.

          1. The “public safety” question depended on your state. In New York, there was likely no need for it. In Missouri, there was very much a need for suspension with animals like William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson roaming Missouri and Kansas.

            1. Had Lincoln limited it to jailing people like Quantrill or Anderson, I wouldn’t take issue with it. Jailing journalists in virtually every state for criticizing him or the war was not necessary for public safety.

              1. Some were anti-war. Others, like the World and the Journal of Commerce, were publishing the Bogus Proclamation (war going badly in 1864, Lincoln to draft 400,000 more troops, a bold lie on two fronts).

                Ex Parte Milligan has since put to rest the theory that citizens can be subject to military tribunals while civilian courts are operational.

              2. In Missouri, the Union troops weren’t just contending with Quantrill and Anderson and the Jameses and the Youngers who rode, raped, robbed and killed with them, but with their relatives and kin throughout the state. Quantrill’s men were so bloodthirsty that they started attacking confederate sympathizers in North Texas just to kill something. Henry McCulloch had to send confederate troops to protect confederate civilians from them.

                Did Copperheads get picked up in the habeas corpus sweeps? Yes. Were there plenty of people in the West engaged in or aiding the asymmetric war against Union civilians who were seized by the military and held without trial? Also yes.

                1. Quantrill and company only started acting like that because the Union troops were acting brutally in what was a Union state.

                  It was really no different than any other sort of guerrilla uprising.

            2. Lol. So basically you will support the PATRIOT Act and the entire state apparatus surrounding the War on Terror (TM) in about 150 years.

              Rights for everybody we like and agree with!

    2. It wasn’t necessary to fire on Fort Sumter; though occupied, they could have waited peacefully and patiently for it to be vacated. Give your enemy breathing room and you’ll live longer, is an old Machiavellian maxim. What did they think the North was going to do? Sit there while her troops were being fired upon? Instead, South Carolinians had to drag everyone else into an unnecessary hot war.

      1. They mostly thought a display of force would get the North to back down, and vice-versa in the North. I think if they anticipated the carnage, they would both have tried harder to back off from the precipice.

      2. It kinda was necessary to fire on Fort Sumter, if only from a strategic standpoint. Lincoln had dispatched a naval force to reinforce the union held position. The CSA, having no measurable navy, needed to gain control of the fort to hope to protect its trading interests and avoid the federal tariff. Incidentally, no one was killed or injured in this assault. Therefore, it hardly merited a full scale invasion and subsequent war that killed 850,000 Americans (by the latest estimate).

    3. Fredrick Douglas should have a nice long conversation with James Baldwin.

  3. Didn’t mustard (in case you guys forgot, he was a particularly dumb lefty troll who used to come around) call Douglass an Uncle Tom the last time Reason wrote about him, because he was in favor of economic freedom?

    1. Colonel Mustard, in H&R, with socialism.

      1. Have you seen polythene Pam?

    2. I really, truly hate the use of “Uncle Tom” as a pejorative. How in hell did the title character of the single most important work of abolitionist fiction ever written get co-opted by race hustlers in a NEGATIVE way?

      Sometimes I hate people.

      1. I totally agree. It’s insanity.

      2. For those who have actually read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Uncle Tom is a Christ-like figure. He is tempted but does not succumb to temptation. He remains blameless in the face of suffering at the hands of unbelievers. And he dies in complete faith.

        Quimbo and Sambo, on the other, are the Yankee slavemaster Simon LaGree’s henchmen, overseeing the other slaves, informing on them to the master, and whipping them when they step out of line, all while taking pleasure in doing so.

      3. Also good to remember that Douglass was a republican, a staunch gun rights advocate and proponent of the frontier spirit of independence (ie not looking to the state for your welfare). Positions like those from a black man (see: Alan West, Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell) will get you lynched in the MSM these days. In fact, the only black men that you are allowed to be racist to are the ones that leave the ideological plantation of the democratic left. The same way that the only women you are allowed to be openly misogynistic to are the ones on the right, like Sarah Palin.
        Commence our two minutes of hate!!!!

    3. I can’t imagine the handful of lefties who even know who Douglass is NOT calling him an Uncle Tom.

  4. Is there a black leader today who is fit to polish Douglass’ boots?
    For that matter, what white leader is fit to powder the founders’ wigs. Oh, how the quality of leadership has fallen in this country.

    1. We don’t have leaders. We have rulers.

    2. Douglas was a rare sort. There are few who could measure up to him at any point in history be they black, white, or purple.

      Coincidentally, one of the few who come pretty close is also black. Thomas Sowell.

      1. Sowell shows too much deference to LEO authority. His column on ‘stop and frisk’ was abysmal.

  5. IMO, Douglass’s Fourth of July speech is one of the greatest orations in U.S. (or indeed, world) history. Too many great lines and sections to quote, I strongly suggest that anyone who has not read it do so.

  6. “Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist who escaped from slavery and went on to become one of the most influential figures in late 19th century America”

    also = looks great in a suit.

    1. Man has some badass hair. Its too bad that, today, the only black man who sports a mane even half as ferocious as that is Don King.

      1. Got no problem with the King.

      2. But, lets not fall for great hair. De Blasio’s son’s ‘fro won his the Democratic primary, making him a shoe in for the general election.

  7. Real Talk: It’s stupid, but I’m constantly weary of promoting black conservatives and libertarians because I’m afraid of the perception that I’m playing race politics, especially when part of the message deals with race, like a “Gotcha: it’s really credible now!”. I’m trying my best not to give a shit, since I don’t care about race myself, but it’s still in the back of my mind. I recommended Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics to a liberal friend, which I think is the easiest-to-understand economics book out there, but I don’t think I’d do the same with an article of his on race.

    1. A good point, but I would keep those race-based articles in reserve for the next time someone suggests that all *real* black people are progressive pro-regulation Democrats. Responding to such a specific claim means *you* weren’t the one to bring up race!

      1. I think you’re right. And I think Sowell’s had some great perspectives and experiences that I wouldn’t have thought of, due to his up-bringing. There was a black girl in my constitutional law class who was pretty liberal, but loved Clarence Thomas’ comments on how affirmative action harms blacks by creating the assumption that individuals didn’t earn their place. Sometimes those associations DO carry credibility. Like I said, it’s stupid and something I need to get over.

        1. It is not your fault. If it were up to you and people like you, race wouldn’t ever be an issue. You are stuck with the dilemma because liberals are just that fucking loathsome and force the conversation to always and forever be about race. Thus you can’t look at someone like Douglas and go “what a amazing guy”. Thanks to liberals you are forced to turn him into a weapon to use against them in their constant quest to collectivize everyone and every thing.

          1. You are stuck with the dilemma because liberals are just that fucking loathsome and force the conversation to always and forever be about race.

            Principals trump principles.

            Different standards for different people.

        2. They may sometimes like to protest “OMG why did you bring up race,” so the thing to do, IMHO, is to wait for a race-batey* comment to reply to.

          *pun intended

          1. That comment that Thomas made the other day about the whites he grew up around in South Carolina treating him much better than northern white liberals ever did must chapped their hide.

    2. I like that Root often brings up the necessary ties between classical liberals and the advancement of civil rights in his articles. If you listen to modern progressives, you would think the opposite was true. Classical liberals were at best ineffectual, at worst, purveyors of oppression while communist and socialist did all the hard work of liberating people (with no mention of their actual post liberation agendas, and their post hoc about face turns of which side they were on, of course).

      Also, regularly going back to Douglas is just emphasizes the fundamentals. Root could do a column on an aspect of his work once a week and it would not be an overload, imo.

      1. Also, regularly going back to Douglas is just emphasizes the fundamentals.

        How that reappeared after deletion. I blame drunk squirrels. No, I am not ready to party yet, l’il buddies.

      2. Douglass may have been America’s first liberal anti-Communist:…..nists.html
        His argument, that Communists were trying to hijack a social-justice movement for their own purposes, would recur again and again through history.

  8. If someone could manage to raise Douglas back to his proper place in the culture at the expense of that Marxist half wit Dubois, the will have done the country a great service.

    1. DuBois strikes me as the reverse of the idea of being socialist when you’re young and outgrowing it. He grew Communist-er and Communist-er as he aged. Which is too bad because he did great work opposing the moonlight-and-magnolias Reconstruction histories of the time, along with other scholarly achievements.

      In 1924, he published a book for the Knights of Columbus on black contributions to the USA, part of a series the Knights were doing about the various non-WASP communities in the country.

      So he was fighting for the recognition of black history before it was cool and cliched. But it seems to have led him in a collectivist direction.…..equal.html

      1. Thanks. That is very interesting.

    2. Sadly that is never gonna happen.

      There is a reason that wise and honorable stand out and the stupid and dishonorable do not; they are rare.

      The appeal of Marxism is the rational of a thief. Thieves justify their behavior by telling themselves that others dont have their property legitimately, they owed it, or that others dont have ownership.

      That means that some despicable son-of-a-bitch who says ‘ you didnt build that’, ‘spread the wealth around’, ‘do your fair share’, and ‘ you dont need more than X amount’ will always be the most popular.

  9. Those Teathuglican Kock-ed up right-wingers are trying to appropriate the great African-American hero Frederick Douglass for their cause.

    I bet they’ll even pretend Douglass was a Republican!

  10. There is currently only one biological race for humans, Homo Sapiens Sapiens. there is not enough genetic diversity to qualify for an extra race or even a sub species. All race card arguments are null and void.
    Fredrick Douglas- his hair shall live on forever

  11. Always wanted to sell these as an alternative to Che t-shirts:


    1. I wish it just had the face and not the writing. Dammit, I don’t want words on my shirt. Is it so much to ask, T-shirt makers?

      1. That’s easily enough accomplished.

    2. 99% of the people who see you wearing that will be wondering why you misspelled “Django” and be quick with a line from an unrelated Tarantino flick.

  12. If you haven’t seen this episode of Louis, it’s great.

    Here’s why.

    His daughter dresses up as Douglass for Halloween.

  13. So if Douglass were alive today, he would be branded a sellout, in addition to being really, really old.

  14. I would like to “nominate” Henry VIII King of England as my Libertarian Hero. He freed the English of the Catholic Church. I would also like to “nominate” his daughter Elizabeth I Queen of England as another Libertarian Hero who freed the Spanish of their gold so we would have the British Empire and the 13 Original Colonies. I would also like to nominate General Santa Ana for wiping out the Alamo so Sam Houston could “Remember The Alamo” so Texas could be free of Mexico. I have some more nominations if anyone is interested. If not, I would certainly like to know who your Libertarian Heroes are. Thank. Have a wonderful “Pie Alamo Day”. YahoOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

    1. I assume this is some attempt at humour.

      Because the parallels between Douglass and the various petty tyrants of history are obvious or something.

      Go troll somewhere else.

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